Concerns raised about state academies’ future

by Colton Kemp Faribault Daily News  A lack of transparency, poor communication and declined enrollment are among the reported concerns that led […]

Faribault Deaf Club Treasurer Sonny Wasilowski kicks off the audience remarks during a town hall at the Minnesota State Academies for the Deaf. At left, Executive Director of the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Darlene Zangara listens.

by Colton Kemp 
Faribault Daily News 

A lack of transparency, poor communication and declined enrollment are among the reported concerns that led multiple groups to criticize leadership of Minnesota State Academies for the Blind and Deaf. But what’s to come is unclear. 

The issues were accompanied by solutions during a special town hall November 9 in the Petra Howard Auditorium at MSAD, during which a gym full of members of the deaf and blind communities expressed grievances to MSA leadership. 

The town hall was set into motion in mid-August, when MSAD Alumni Association board members sent a letter of no confidence to the board of the state-funded public schools located in Faribault. 

The letter outlined three issues of concern: poor communication, declining enrollment and working environment for staff. Then, on September 5, representing “the deaf community of Faribault, Northfield, Kenyon, Owatonna and beyond,” the Faribault Deaf Club sent a similar email. 

Both emails insisted upon an urgent search for new leadership at the schools. 

Minnesota State Academies Board Chair Katie Wangberg puts an audience member’s suggestion on the wall of the Petra Howard Auditorium during a town hall

The MSA board announced a town hall meeting in late October for anyone in the community to share ideas, problems and solutions. 

“The purpose of the town hall meeting will be to gather input and ideas for solutions so that the Minnesota State Academies and the community can move forward in a positive direction,” read the letter. “A facilitator will be guiding the discussion to help us gather input from a variety of stakeholders regarding possible solutions to the concerns that you have shared.” 

The MSAD Alumni Association and Faribault Deaf Club both responded with letters reemphasizing the urgency of the matter and the need for new leadership at MSA. 

“We understand the gravity of the decision to change leadership and the implications it carries,” wrote the alumni association. “Nevertheless, the wellbeing of the students and the future of the Minnesota State Academies are paramount.” 

Both responses also noted the ideas both organizations have offered in the past. 

“A change-agent with a fresh perspective and the ability to address these long-standing issues is indispensable,” the deaf club wrote. “We remain open to constructive dialogue and collaboration but believe that the appointment of new leadership is the cornerstone of any solution.” 

Attendees listen in at town hall meeting.

On a letterhead dated October 16, board members of the MSAD Parent, Teacher and Staff Association wrote a letter to the MSAD leadership outlining the same issues as the other organizations. 

Several dozen people filed into the auditorium for the town hall, where they were greeted by a table with a dozen or two stacks of sticky notes, pens and a suggestion box. The audience included MSA board members and administration, concerned parents, teachers, students and other stakeholders. 

Executive Director of the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Darlene Zangara introduced herself as the facilitator. She was accompanied by MSA Board Chair Katie Wangberg. 

Zangara and Wangberg explained the rules and procedures for the forum, before handing over the floor to multiple staff members. 

School officials presented school enrollment data. Both schools have followed a similar downward trajectory over the past five years. This school year, MSAD had a slight bump, but it was coming off an even bigger drop. 

“There was a time in our history where rubella and spinal meningitis caused a lot of hearing loss, of deafness,” MSAD Elementary and Early Childhood Learning Principal Brian Johnson said. “And we haven’t seen that in a long time. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was passed. Cochlear implants and other medical interventions were invented.” 

A wide range of suggestions were raised during the forum by parents, alumni and teachers. 
Some ideas were radical, like the dissolution of the statewide schools and breaking into regional schools or moving to the schools to the Twin Cities. Some were less so, like affording employees the chance to give their supervisors performance reviews. 

Faribault Deaf Club Treasurer Sonny Wasilowski spoke from the audience. 

“In my eight years on the board, there was a lot of structured, systematic change,” he said. “But the bigger umbrella: investment in engagement. We can have these listening sessions, but we just need to see more change.” 

A parent and former student of MSAD, Rochella Jones, said her child’s class size is down to just three students. 

“She’s stuck with them all day long,” she said. “I do admit I think about it and I still worry, but I’m still here. I’ll be here. I’m always gonna fight. I’ll always be a Trojan.” 

Jones pointed out the board meetings don’t have an American Sign Language interpreter. 
“If something passes, I think ‘Okay, I think a lot of people are going to be upset about it,’” she said. “But it turns out a lot of people aren’t even aware of it. I’m not going to speak up. And maybe people don’t know that things are being passed at the board meetings.” 

Other suggestions included hiring some hearing staff, allowing parents to lead campus tours, and increasing activities between the schools. After each idea was shared, Wangberg put it onto a sticky note and added it to a poster board for later. 

A few parents said there are doctors in the metro that actually discourage parents of deaf children from attending MSAD, due to a lack of social and personal development. 

As the town hall neared the two-hour mark, Wasilowski spoke again. 

“Understand that the letter of no confidence does not mean that we fire,” he said. “It means that: ‘Okay, hold on. We need time to discuss and figure out what our future leaders should look like.’ There’s many things that you can see on the poster wall that needs to be addressed by new leadership: the change makers, the problem solvers, the visionaries. So that’s what we are also saying that we need to discuss . . .  This is overdue. And we don’t want another six months.” 

In an email to the Daily News, Wangberg said the MSA board plans to discuss the ideas from the forum during a meeting in December. 

“We’ve been pleased to see new programs such as robotics, outreach services and toddler early childhood education classes established to serve our families, resulting in increased enrollment at MSA over the past few months,” she said. “We are looking forward to serving additional families within those programs. 

“MSA is also in the process of developing a new multi-year strategic plan that will include ways in which MSA can continue to grow and improve services for deaf, hard-of-hearing, deafblind, blind and visually impaired students statewide. We will continue to gather more input from our stakeholders during this process and will be sharing further details with our community along the way.” 

This article is reprinted with permission of Faribault Daily News and Adams Publishing Group.

Find the original article here.

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